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A few good minutes with 'Tournament Tom'

When Houston upset Texas-El Paso on Saturday in the Conference USA tournament title game to claim its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992, Coach Tom Penders became the eighth coach to lead four different programs to the Big Dance. In a telephone interview Monday evening, Penders said the key at each stop has been his ability to tell his players exactly what he wants out of them.

That trait certainly proved vital this season, as the Cougars endured a rash of misfortunes en route to earning their NCAA tournament bid.

Penders said senior guard Aubrey Coleman -- who led the nation in scoring (25.6 points per game) this season -- will not practice until Thursday because of a lingering thigh injury. Coleman has not been able to practice regularly since suffering what Penders called "a terrible charley horse that turned into a hematoma" during a 65-58 loss at UTEP on Feb. 3.

"It was like a football helmet on his thigh and he didn't practice for about two weeks," Penders said. "He was here and went through walk-throughs and could shoot and all that stuff, but he really could not get up and down the floor except on game day. And he was taking medications and they were draining it."

Then, on Feb. 26, the day before Houston's game at Southern Methodist, Coleman was kneed in the thigh again, according to Penders, which re-aggravated the injury.

"Our doctors say the worst is past, but it's best to rest him," Penders said.

Coleman was born with a condition in which keloids grow on the inside and outside of his body. Keloids are excess growths of scar tissue that are non-malignant and non-contagious. He has one on his neck and, according to Penders, several more on the inside of his body. Penders said Coleman has had the keloid on his neck removed "about five times," but it came back bigger each time. Coleman's keloid condition was part of the reason he did not start playing organized basketball until he was a senior at Thurgood Marshall High School in Missouri City, Tex.

"They wouldn't let him play in high school," Penders said. "He went one year to a prep school, a local one, just to play. He was fine academically. He went to a junior college in Mississippi. And he's local and he wanted to be close to his mom and play with our kids in the summer. So we were able to get him. And when he came here he really couldn't shoot, but he was a great athlete that loved to play and more of a defensive player. We've worked with him and he's developed into a very good shooter, a scorer. He's one of the few college players today that has a great medium range game."

Coleman's mother, Cynthia, also has a keloid condition and, according to Penders, has been in and out of the hospital five times over the past couple of years.

Aside from Coleman, Houston's roster includes several other players who have overcome injury and hardship this season.

Freshman forward Kendrick Washington was unable to do anything basketball related until November after having steel rods surgically inserted into his legs after doctors discovered hairline fractures in both of his shins. Washington (6 feet 7, 270 pounds) was on a running regimen that had helped him drop down to 260 pounds.

"We played him five minutes here, 10 minutes here and all that," Penders said. "Probably didn't even play at all the first four or five games, and then by February he was able to go 25, 30 minutes, so we played the first half of our schedule a little bit more without him, and he's a big, physical kid that was an all-state player, player of the year in Louisiana."

Junior guard Zamal Nixon came down with mononucleosis on Feb. 22 and continues to play through the ailment.

"He was able to play a little bit when we first found out he had it, and then the doctors shut him down for a few games and then they let him back in there," Penders said. "But still he lost 15 pounds, and he's only about 165 to begin with."

Around the same time, junior forward Maurice McNeil broke his nose. McNeil also had to miss the last three games of the regular season to fly back to his native New York City and be with his mother, who had to have part of her foot removed because of complications from her diabetes and heart condition, according to Penders. McNeil returned to Houston the day the Cougars departed for Tulsa for the conference tournament and just barely made the team flight.

"Those guys are all starters, and we lost some games that we never would have lost, but we hung in there," Penders said. "I've had a great player get a sprained ankle or go down with a knee or something. But one player; not four."

As for his offensive strategy when Coleman & Co. are on the court, Penders said it's fairly simple: Find ways for the nation's leading scorer to, you know, score.

"I'll be honest with you: I try to figure out what a kid is capable of doing and develop an offense that he can do it in. We've changed a lot of our stuff for" Coleman, Penders said. "He can play the point. He's a great ballhandler. But he's obviously a guy that I want to be productive because he can go for 30. And he doesn't care about stats. Except turnovers; he gets upset. We lost four or five games in late December. He had the yips at the foul line. He was 76 percent last year and just went through a terrible spell. Shot 42 percent in five losses and real close games. He just basically lived in the gym and straightened it out himself. He's very tough on himself, very demanding.

"When it's crunch time, he usually has [the ball]. I'm sure Gary knows that. I think Mr. Vasquez will have it in crunch time, too, you know?"

As for Maryland, Penders said he watched "at least a dozen" Terrapins games on television this season. He said he has about seven flat-screen televisions with TiVo capabilities at his disposal, which he uses to tape games of various teams across the country.

"We run some of [Maryland's] out-of-bounds plays," Penders said. "I steal things from other coaches, but you know, I watch college basketball every night and when they're on I watch them ... They play hard, and we pride ourselves on playing hard. But you're not going to play harder than they play."

Penders said a large part of what has kept him in the head coaching profession after 36 seasons at the helms of seven different programs is the enjoyment he gets out of it. He said he used to bartend and paint houses to make a little extra money back when he was head coach at Columbia, Fordham and Rhode Island in the 1970s and '80s.

"None of us got into this thing for money, and I joke about all the older coaches, you know, Calhoun and Boeheim and Gary and me," Penders said. "None of us got into it to make money. We used to get together. We used to spend time together. Gary was up in Boston. I was in New York. When I coached in New York, we'd play Seton Hall and Bill Raftery and I, if he won he bought the beers and the food. If I won I bought 'em. And we usually would try to sneak out on the tab, but they knew us so well they just kept the tab until we came back. We had a lot of fun. I don't think these young guys have near the fun we did. Nope."

When asked about a recent report that stated he planned to retire at the end of this season, Penders provided an emphatic response.

"Hell no, I'm too young," said Penders, who is 64. "I've got a very young wife, and my daughter lives up in D.C. She's finishing up school at GW and had worked for Hilary [Clinton] in the last campaign. She's in politics. She actually lives in Arlington, right over the bridge there. But she's much younger than me, my wife, and she'd throw me out [if I retired]. That just comes from talk radio. I don't need to coach for money. I don't need a dime or anything. As long as I'm having fun and my health is good, I hope to coach until that day. I can't think of anything more fun to do."

By Steve Yanda  |  March 16, 2010; 7:27 AM ET
Categories:  Men's basketball  
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Next: A few good minutes with Houston's Aubrey Coleman


anyone know where the team is staying in spokane or how to find out?

ill be there if anyone is going out and wants some md fans to hook up with...

Posted by: deadskin | March 16, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

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